Anne Miller talks outsiders, unusual instruments and secrets with author Annelies Verbeke.
Annelies Verbeke is fascinated by the role of outsiders.
“Sometimes people are really waiting for an outsider to listen to them,” she says. “Because you cannot tell all your secrets to the one living next to you.”
In her latest novel, Thirty Days (originally published in Dutch as Dertig dagen), this role is played by Alphonse, a Senegalese musician-turned-decorator who has moved from Brussels to the rural Belgian district of Westhoek with his girlfriend Cat. As his work takes him around the area and into his employers’ houses and lives they begin to tell him their secrets.
From the couple furious their neighbours are copying everything they do, to an ageing butterfly thief, the stories come thick and fast and escalate in drama and jeopardy as the story progresses.
Verbeke admits there was a moment when she wondered if the premise was believable enough – would people really spill their secrets as soon as someone new arrived at their house? The answer came rather serendipitously when she met Alphonse’s real-life equivalent – a Senegalese decorator who was formerly a musician – and he told her that the secret-sharing is exactly what happens to him.
“He said, ‘It makes me so happy, and people tell me everything and they cry,’” she recalls.
There was a similarly pleasing turn of events (and more evidence of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon – when you spot something unusual and then start seeing it everywhere) when she chose the kora as Alphonse’s instrument.
Verbeke had never seen the West African lute-like instrument before but suddenly they began appearing in her real life. While writing the novel, she had to briefly pause work to travel to New York for a reading. When she arrived (and without having said anything) she found a kora player seated in front of her for the reading and saw it as a sign that the book had to be written.
“Sometimes when you are writing a book you really get magical moments and this was one of them, and I understood that I really had to write this book because something is telling me I should,” she says.
“Verbeke admits there was a moment when she wondered if the premise was believable enough – would people really spill their secrets as soon as someone new arrived at their house?”
Verbeke studied English and Dutch language and literature at university in Ghent, then undertook a postgraduate course in screenwriting. Her final piece, a feature film, was selected for a workshop held by the Mediterranean Film Institute and it was there that she was encouraged to keep writing.
Her debut novel Slaap! (Sleep!) was published in 2003 and published in 22 countries, with the Dutch edition selling more than 75,000 copies. Verbeke also writes plays and short stories, although she has stopped writing screenplays for films “because it’s such a long way between writing and having ideas and then having them made into a film. Normally you don’t get there – or when you get there it’s something completely different, because you always have to think about money and how much it costs to make something. Fortunately, in fiction you don’t have that problem.”
Short stories are her favourite form “because it’s so free”, and you can see their influence in the number of characters Alphonse meets and the situations he ends up in. “In a way they are little short stories inside the novel […] it’s just a cut-out of somebody’s life and you do not know what is going to happen.”
One of the characters Alphonse meets is ‘the author’, whom Verbeke clearly has a lot of fun writing. The pair meet when she is on a writing retreat: “I’m here too soon. A residency is only useful, I think, if you’ve been working on a book for a long time and are getting to be disagreeable. Then those around you benefit from it as well.”
Alphonse is there painting the stairwell and they start talking. Later she gives him an erotic short story she has written called The Dietician and the Plasterer, in which, Alphonse realises to his growing discomfort, he has clearly been cast in the main role.
The story appears in full in the novel but has been published before. Verbeke had been commissioned to write it for a magazine and realised both the potential to take it further and that a job as a plasterer would be the perfect occupation for her lead character in Thirty Days. ‘The author’ will also return in her next collection of short stories.
Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke is published by World Editions and is available now.
Catch up on Anne’s previous Fully Booked columns here.
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Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne